Juan Serpa: From Ontario commune dweller to award-winning Desautels professor

Desautels prof was once named one of the world's top 40 business school teachers for undergraduates

The Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching recognizes the commitment of outstanding teachers who are the very core of the academic experience of McGill students. During Fall 2021 Convocation ceremonies, six of McGill’s exceptional educators will be awarded a Principal’s Prize. Juan Serpa, a member of the Desautels Faculty of Management, is this years’s winner of the Principal’s Prize in the Associate Professor category.

Somewhere on his way to the Great Revolution, Juan Serpa got sidetracked.

A native of Colombia, Serpa set off to Peterborough, Ontario when he was 17. “I lived in a hippie commune somewhere in an Ontario forest, between my bachelor and post-graduate degree,” he says. “I shared a big house with 15 fellow hippies. The principle was to share everything. We only owned underwear, a toothbrush, and our soap bar. Other than that, everything was communal, including the clothing. We practiced dumpster diving to collect our food. The main philosophy behind the commune was anti-speciesism [the philosophy that all animal species are morally equal]. Since then, I became interested in veganism.”

“Ironing a shirt for the first time,” says Juan Serpa when asked about his most vivid memory of his first day teaching.

“To be honest, I have no idea [when I realized I wanted to teach]. I grew up with the dream of becoming a communist revolutionary. I came to Canada with the dream of studying post-Marxist philosophy,” says Serpa. “But, somehow, I ended up becoming a business school professor. Somewhere in the process I must have gotten co-opted.”

As it turned out, communism’s loss was the Desautels Faculty of Management’s gain, as Serpa has just won the 2021 Principal’s Prize for Excellence in Teaching in the category of Associate Professor.

Not surprisingly for a person with his background, Serpa is praised by his students for his commitment to social responsibility. That virtue is on full display when he discusses his Data Analytics and AI for Business course.

“When you teach artificial intelligence in a business school, you’re teaching a double-edged weapon. An algorithm that promotes operational efficiency could be used to run effectively a community organization, or to make people more addicted to online shopping, or to promote deforestation,” says Serpa.

“I have a great degree of ambivalence about teaching tools that are responsible the for the destruction of many societal fibres. At the same time, these same tools could become the best ally to curtail change much of the damage we’ve made. The challenge is: How to pass this knowledge while instilling personal and social responsibility on their use?”

His desire to use data to benefit society inspired Serpa to develop the COVID-19 Analytics course last year.

“I taught students how to use analytics to study pandemics, and to prevent future pandemics. We went on to create one of the first COVID-19 dashboards in Quebec with this group of students,” he says. “And we’re in the process of creating a data repository to store Quebec’s COVID-19 data. These data could be useful to act more effectively when the next pandemic hits.”

Overcoming natural shyness to become a great story teller

Overcoming the shyness of his youth, Serpa has transformed himself into an award-winning teacher who, in 2017, was named one of the world’s top 40 undergraduate professors at a business school by Poets & Quants.

“You get to be a story teller in an area you love,” he says when asked what he enjoys most about teaching.

“Don’t teach from textbooks or borrow slides,” he says as advice for teachers just starting out. “Think of a lecture as a story, the students as an audience, and Facebook/Instagram as the other story teller in town (who competes for their attention).”

“Your goal is to tell a better story, one that will make the students be with you, instead of turning to the other storyteller in town,” says Serpa. “This forces you to break out your lectures into five-minute chunks, and to imagine how every small chunk can maximize the attention of your students. Once you’ve mastered every five-minute chunk, you’ve got a great story to tell – and a great lecture to deliver.”

“You will see your students smile, and it will make your teaching experience a joy.”